The russians in the great game

 Alexei Pavlovich (1844-1873) and Olga Alexandrovna Fedchenko (1845-1921)

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1871 Alexei Pavlovich (1844-1873) and Olga Alexandrovna Fedchenko (1845-1921)

Already prior to the annexation of Kokand, Russian researchers had penetrated the Pamirs. In 1868, 

with the encouragement of the Russian authorities, Alexei Pavlovich Fedchenko and his wife Olga 

Alexandrovna travelled to Tashkent – a coach journey of 53 days – and began their expeditions to 

Turkestan with the exploration of Samarkand, Penjikent, the Zerafshan valley and Hissar (including 

the Fan Mountains and Iskanderkul Lake), the Kyzyl Kum Desert and the Ferghana valley.


Alexei and Olga Fedchenko (


In 1871, they were on the northern edge of the Pamirs. There they were dazzled by the spectacular 

peaks opposite them on the other side of the Alai Valley. Fedchenko called this range the Trans-Alai 

and identified what was for some time believed to be the highest peak in the Pamirs and named it 

after the Governor-General of Turkestan, Kaufmann; this name remained until it became Lenin Peak 

in 1928 and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) Peak in 2006. 

Ibn Sina Peak and the Trans-Alai range (1998


From local informants in Kokand, Fedchenko gleaned information about the hitherto unexplored region 

of Darwaz and its chief settlement, Kala-i-Khum, also known as Iskander Sindona (“Alexander’s 

prison”). He also learned that Darwaz included a territory beyond Karategin known as “Wachia” by 

ancient geographers that had sometimes been confused with the Wakhan in the south.



Mittheilungen des Vereins für Erdkunde zu Leipzig, 1872, pp. 7-8. The territory known by the ancient geographers as “Wachia” is still known 

locally as “Wachio”.

Robert Middleton 


 Fedchenko’s report to the Imperial Russian Geographical Society (IRGS) in December 1871



a sensation, as it was the first report by a Russian on the Pamirs and was considered as equivalent 

in importance to the discovery of the sources of the Nile. Having seen the chain of high mountains 

running along the south of the Alai valley, Fedchenko felt confident in confirming the hypothesis of 

a vast plateau behind them. He reported the information given him by the local inhabitants that there 

were two Pamirs: the “little” Pamir (“Pamir-Khurd”) that he supposed to be the area around Zorkul 

(visited by John Wood in 1838


); he suggested that the “great” Pamir (“Pamir-i-Kalan”) was to be 

found directly behind the Transalai range.

View of the Transalai range from Sary Tash (1995)

After Fedchenko’s untimely death in the French Alps in 1873, his research was continued by his 

widow Olga, a remarkable woman who overcame many male prejudices against her participation 

in her husband’s expeditions by her professionalism and scientific competence. It was Olga who 

prepared for publication all the materials collected during their travels in Central Asia (Путешествие 

в Туркестан - Travel to Turkestan, Moscow 1875).

In 1900, together with their son Boris, she finally fulfilled her husband’s ambition to travel to the 

Pamirs. Their stay in Shughnan led to the publication by the Academy of Sciences of extensive 

studies on the flora of the Pamirs in 1901, 1905 and 1906. She died in 1921, leaving more than 

sixty scientific publications under her name and with the distinctions of correspondent member of 

the Russian Academy of Sciences and honorary member of the French Société de Géographie, the 

Boston Academy of Science and the International Academy of Botanical Geography – truly one of the 

foremost women scientists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her name lives on in the 

designation by the Leningrad Botanical Garden of the Central Asian plant Olgaea Iljin.

13   Summarised by de Khanikoff in the Bulletin de la Société de Géographie (BSG), 1872, pp. 60-64.

14   See Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, op.cit., pp. 337-348.

The Russians in the Great Game 


1876 Lev Feofanovich Kostenko (1841-1891)

In October 1875, the Russian forces under Mikhail Dmitriyevich 

Skobelev defeated the rebel Khan of Kokand and, in 1876, Russia 

annexed the Khanate of Kokand. 

In July 1876, Skobelev sent a military expedition to subdue 

marauding Kyrgyz tribes on their summer pastures in the Alai. The 

expedition  included  Captain  Lev  Feofanovich  Kostenko  (1841-

1891) - for geographical and statistical studies; Vasily Fedorovich 

Oshanin - as the mission’s naturalist – see below; A. R. Bonsdorf 

- as surveyor; and eight topographers under Lebedev (among them 

Korostovstsev and Zhilin). 

Three columns were formed to travel to the Alai by different routes. 

Kostenko, Oshanin and Bonsdorf were sent to Gulcha to catch up 

with the column led by Prince F.K. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, 

a colonel on the Turkestan General Staff. Wittgenstein had been 

sent by Skobelev to catch Abdul Beg, a rebel Kyrgyz leader, over 

the Kyzyl Art pass to Kara Kul and was thus the first European 

to  see  the  lake.  Some  of  his  officers  returned  to  camp  shortly 

afterwards and reported that the Kara Kul was so high that “many 

of the men bled from the nose, while several of them fainted away.” Skobelev, who had just received 

the submission of the Kyrgyz in the Russian camp, despatched another group to assist Wittgenstein at 

Kara Kul and ordered Kostenko to accompany it.

Prince F.K. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg with Kyrgyz escort






Robert Middleton 


Crossing the Kyzyl Art pass on 14 August, Kostenko explored Karakul and noted that

A rude piercing wind blows daily from the north, beginning at 2 or 3 p.m. I never experienced more 

violent gusts. The hard sandstone exposed to the wind is strongly affected by it. Some of the rocks are 

perfectly drilled. In spite of the violent gusts of wind, I ascended to the top of the highest elevation, 

and was well rewarded for my pains. A magnificent scene opened to the view. The mountain circle 

seemed to spring directly from out of the water, proudly looking at its own reflection in the glassy lake 

whose blue waters lave the feet of the heights.


A scout had been sent on to seek information on the whereabouts of Abdul Beg and returned with a 

report that he had already escaped to Afghanistan. Since no order had yet been received to return to 

the Alai, Wittgenstein authorised Kostenko to undertake an exploratory expedition to the regions of 

Rang Kul and Sarikol.

The expedition, comprising Kostenko, Lebedev, Bonsdorf and fifteen horsemen, left Kara Kul on 

18 August. From the Uzbel pass (4,651m) they were able to confirm Humboldt’s hypothesis of the 

existence of a north-south range of mountains bordering the Pamirs on the east (the Kongur and 


 - see footnote 2.

Kara Kul north shore (1998)

The Russians in the Great Game 


Mustagh Ata massif), that 

George Hayward had seen from 

Kashgar in 1869


 – Kostenko 

estimated their height more 

correctly than Hayward, 

at 25,000 feet. They had 

underestimated the distances 

to be covered, however, and 

shortage of food forced the 

expedition to return before 

being able to explore Rang Kul.

A further expedition with 

Prince Wittgenstein took 

Kostenko to Daroot Kurgan in 

the western Alai valley, where 

there was a fort established by 

the Khan of Kokand to keep a watchful eye on the nomadic Kyrgyz in the valley. Wittgenstein sent 

Kostenko on a reconnaissance across the Kyzyl Su and up the Min Teke river to the Ters Agar pass 

where he discovered an ancient 

shrine (Altyn Mazar), identified 

the three confluents of the Muk 

Su (Sauksai, Kaindy and Selsu) 

and saw glaciers and high peaks 


The expedition moved on 

to Karamyk to discuss the 

delimitation of frontiers 

with an envoy of the Shah 

of Karategin, and returned 

through Shakhimardan to 

Kokand at the end of September 

1876. They had mapped, at 

a scale of 2 versts


 to the 

inch,  3,700  square  versts  of 

what Kostenko described as 

“the most interesting and least known portion of the Pamir upland.” In 1880 Kostenko’s account 

of his work was published in St. Petersburg under the title Туркестанский край. Опыт военно-

статистического обозрения Туркестанского военного округа [The Turkestan frontier: Report on 

the military-statistical overview of the Turkestan military district].

Kostenko comments, correctly, that “I am the first European who has obtained a sight of the headwaters 

16   George Hayward, ‘Journey from Leh to Yarkand and Kashgar, and Exploration of the Sources of the Yarkand River’, Journal of the Royal 

Geographical Society (JRGS), Vol. 40 (1870), pp. 33-166.

17   1 verst = 1.0668 km

View of Mustagh Ata from Kulma (1998)

Fort in  Daroot Kurgan (1999)

Robert Middleton 


of the Muk Su river.” What he did not know was that the glacier arms he saw from there were part of 

the glacier system later named after Fedchenko. No European would actually set foot on the glacier 

for another two years and it would not be fully explored until 1928.

1877 Ivan Vasilievitch Mushketov (1850-1902)

Ivan Vasilievitch Mushketov was born in Alekseyevskoi on the 

Don. In 1866, the Russian College of Mining began research 

into the coal resources of the Donetsk basin and began recruiting 

promising students from the area for training as geologists. After 

starting his studies in the faculty of history and letters at St. 

Petersburg, Mushketov was selected for an army scholarship and 

transferred to the College of Mining under Professor Romanovsky, 

and graduated in 1872 with a first class degree. Geology was to 

become his consuming passion.


In 1873, on Romanovsky’s recommendation, he was attached 

to  the  Russian  General  Staff  in  Turkestan,  where  other  famous 

names had preceded him: Semyonov Tienshansky, Severtsov (see 

below) and Fedchenko. None before him, however, had had specific responsibility for geological and 

geographical surveying. Expeditions to the western Tian Shen, the Syr-Darya, the Zerafshan valley 

and western Ferghana led him to the conclusion that the proper study of the geology of Central Asia 

necessitated an understanding of its mountain systems and, in particular, the Pamirs.

In 1875, he explored the Tien-Shan and, for his work there, was elected a full member of the IRGS and 

was awarded its silver medal. In 1877 he travelled from the Alai to explore the Muk Su valley and got 

a glimpse of the glacier above it. Returning to the Alai valley, he went into the Pamirs as far as Kara 

Kul, but had to cut short his explorations because of the unsettled situation in neighbouring Kashgar, 

where Chinese forces were attempting to wrest power from the Kokandian adventurer Yakub Beg. In 

1878, he explored the upper Alai valley, the Kyzyl Su and the geology of the central Tienshan range 

up to Chatyrkul.

Mushketov concluded, from their geology, that the Pamirs were once on the seabed.

If we could go back in time to the period of the tertiary deposits, we would see instead of the present 

mountains an entirely different picture. Where there are now the massifs of the Pamirs there was then 

a stormy sea which extended far to the West, probably as far as the Caspian, and, to the east, covered 

all of East Turkestan and the deserts of Gobi and Mongolia, the Hanhai of the Chinese. In this sea 

only here and there would we be able to see some island formations... At the end of the tertiary period, 

these island masses were mainly to be found where are now the Pamirs: they increased in volume and 

began to stand apart as mountain ridges. In the process of drainage the sea receded, and the Pamirs 

area became more and more prominent and formed a land mass protruding from the sea; its height 

increased, but not so high that life was extinguished, for we must suppose that at that time the climate 

18   Source for much of this section:


Ivan Vasilievitch Mushketov



The Russians in the Great Game 


on the Pamirs was more temperate than now, and plant and animal life incomparably richer.

... Finally the sea gradually recedes, and as the land is drained and raised, the upper parts of the Pamirs 

become less accessible, less suitable for life and more deserted: the fauna moves to more hospitable 

ground and humans gradually descend in search of better refuge, following the path of the waters, so 

to say, and are spread across the continent in proportion to the retreat of the sea.


Mushketov and Romanovsky produced the first geological map of Turkestan (30 versts to the inch) in 

1881. The first volume of Mushketov’s Туркестан. Геологическое и орографическое описание по 

данным, собранным во время путешествий с 1874 по 1880 гг. [Turkestan: Description of Geology 

and Relief on the Basis of Data Collected during Travels in 1874-80] was published in 1886 and led 

to a much better understanding of the mountain system of the Pamirs. For this work, he received the 

Makarev prize of the Academy of Sciences and an award from the Russian Mineralogical Society. In 

1887 he studied the causes and effects of the great earthquake that devastated Verny (Almaty) and, 

shortly before his death, was involved in the extension of the Trans-Siberian railway.

He died of pneumonia in 1902, and the second volume of Turkestan was published posthumously in 

1906. It was republished in 1915 with additions and notes from subsequent scientific explorations 

and was a major work of reference for the next generation of researchers of Central Asia. He was also 

the author of a work in French, Les Richesses Minérales du Turkestan Russe [The mineral wealth 

of Russian Turkestan], published in Paris in 1878. He received the highest award of the IRGS – the 

Konstantinov medal – and was made an honorary member of the Vienna Geographical Society. A 

glacier in the Tien-Shan range in Kyrgyzstan is named after him. 

In his obituary, V.F.Oshanin (see the next section) wrote:

The seven best and most productive years of the scientist’s life were devoted to geological research of 

our outer regions, and these works gave him widespread and well-deserved fame... People possessing 

such abilities, with such energy and love of their work, are not frequently encountered in the scientific 

community: the death of such an outstanding scientist, at the age of only 52, is a heavy and irreplace-

able loss for science and for all humanity.

1878 Vasily Fedorovich Oshanin (1844-1917)

Vasily Fedorovich Oshanin was born in Lipetsk Oblast south of Moscow. He entered the faculty 

of physics and mathematics at the university of Moscow at the age of seventeen and graduated in 

natural history in 1865. After beginning his career as a teacher, he was sent to Turkestan in 1872 by 

the Ministry of State Properties to study silk-making and took up a teaching position at the Tashkent 

school of silk manufacture and later became the secretary of the Turkestan section of the IRGS.

As we have seen, Oshanin was in the Alai in 1876 as part of Skobelev’s mission and in 1878 he returned 

as the head of a scientific expedition put together by the Moscow ‘Imperial Association of Friends of 

19   ‘Памир и Алай’ [Pamir and Alai], in Живописная Россия [Picturesque Russia], Русская Средняя Азия [Russian Central Asia], St.Petersburg-

Moscow, 1885, pp. 299-322. Mushketov’s conclusion explains the presence of coral in the Eastern Pamirs, used in traditional jewellery 




Robert Middleton 


the Natural Sciences’ (Императорское общество любителей естествознания, антропологии и 

этнографии), that – in addition to Oshanin as entomologist – included Fedchenko, the topographer 

G.E. Rodionov and the botanist M.J. Nevessky. Leaving Samarkand in July 1877, the expedition 

reached the Karategin in April 1878. In Jayilgan, just above the junction of the Muk Su with the 

Kyzyl Su (‘red river’ in Kyrgyz - further downstream it is known by the Tajik equivalent ‘Surkhob’), 

Oshanin noted some very high peaks to the south-east to which he gave numbers, leaving it to others 

to give them names. The easternmost and highest (to which he gave the number 1) he estimated at 

about 25,000 feet. Not long afterwards, the Russians named several of Oshanin’s numbered peaks 

in honour of contemporary explorers and scientists: Severtsov (see below); Jean Louis Rodolphe 

Agassiz, US naturalist born in Switzerland  (1807-1873); and John Tyndall, Irish physicist, naturalist 

and educator (1820-1893) – evidence of a world where the scientific community was still truly global 

and not divided by ideology. 

Unable to travel with loaded animals up the 

valley of the Muk Su, the expedition continued 

up the Kyzyl Su as far as the Min Teke river 

and followed it to Altyn Mazar. From there they 

were able to ascend to the tongue of the great 

glacier at about 3,000m, which they named 

after Oshanin’s friend Fedchenko, and explored 

the Seldara river and the little Tanimas glacier. 

In his report, Oshanin estimated the length of 

the Fedchenko glacier at some twenty versts 

(the 1928 Russo-German scientific expedition 

measured it more accurately at 77 km, 

confirming it as the longest mountain glacier in 

the world).

It was originally intended that the expedition 

would attempt to travel from the upper Muk Su 

to look for a way into Shughnan and explore 

Yashilkul.  The  narrow  rock-strewn  valley 

of the Belandkiik was impossible to pass on 

horseback, however, and, after only 15 km, with 

several of his party suffering from illness, the 

expedition was forced to turn back. From local 

Kyrgyz, Oshanin learned that their preferred 

route to Murghab was up the Kaindy river and over the pass of the same name (4,822m). It was, 

however, still covered in deep snow from the preceding heavy winter and an attempt to cross it was 

out of the question. The expedition came down to the Alai and returned to Tashkent via Gulcha and 


A map showing their route was drawn up by Rodionov and published in Petermann’s Geographische 

Mittheilungen in 1882.

Oshanin (top left) with Fedchenko (centre) and other “Friends of the 

Natural Sciences” (


The Russians in the Great Game 


1878 P.G. Matveyev

The map showing Oshanin’s route also showed part of the route of a Russian expedition later the 

same year to left-bank Badakhshan under the leadership of Colonel P.G. Matveyev. This expedition 

included the German director of the Tashkent observatory, Schwartz, a surveyor, Lieutenant Trotsky, 

and a zoologist, Rusov. After crossing the Oxus near Kulob, they were first stopped in Rostaq on 

orders of the Afghan government and then taken over a very difficult mountain route to Faizabad 

where the late season forced them to abandon their intention of visiting Kafiristan and to return to 

Samarkand through Taloqan, Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. The unusual route forced on them by their 

Afghan ‘hosts’ across the central mountains of Badakhshan enabled them, however, to map hitherto 

unexplored territory and add considerably to the data on the region collected by British and ‘native’ 

explorers (the ‘pundits’).


1878 Nicolai Alekseevich Severtsov (1827-1885)

By the time he undertook his exploration of the Pamirs, Nikolai 

Severtsov was already a seasoned and famous traveller. Privately 

educated, he entered the faculty of physics and mathematics of 

Moscow university at the age of only 16 and began zoological 

research in his home province of Voronezh, completing his Master’s 

degree  in  1855.  Shortly  afterwards  he  was  sent  on  a  scientific 

expedition to the lower reaches of the Syr-Darya. This work was 

not without danger, as he was attacked and badly wounded early 

in the mission by marauding bands from Kokand, who carried him 

off to Turkestan. Freed after a month in captivity, he took up his 

research work in the field almost immediately. 

In 1864 he was attached to the staff of General Chernyaev at the 

time of the latter’s assaults on Chimkent and Tashkent and, in the 

period 1865-68, made expeditions to the Syr-Daria region, the Tien Shan, lake Issyk-Kul and Khujand. 

The results of these expeditions were published in 1873 (Путешествия по Туркестанскому краю 

и исследования горной страны Тянь-Шаня [Travels in Turkestan and research in the high Tian 



 for which he was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of zoology at Moscow university, the 

Litke gold medal of the IRGS and the gold medal of the Paris International Geographical Congress.

On Kaufmann’s instructions, he made a first attempt to reach the Pamirs at the end of 1877, hard 

on the heels of Mushketov’s expedition to the Alai. The expedition, under the command of Captain 

Skorniakov, included - in addition to Severtsov - Schwarz, head of the Tashkent observatory, the 

cartographer Skassi and the botanist and entomologist Captain Kushakievich.


 They left Tashkent 

20    See ‘Поездка но бухарским и афганским владен полковника Матвеева’ [Colonel Metveyev’s Travels in Bukhara and Afghanistan] in Сборник 

географических, топографических и статистических материалов по Азии [Collection of Geographical and Statistical materials on Asia], Issue 

V, Military Scientific Committee of the Russian General Staff, St. Petersburg 1883 (


); also BSG, Paris, 1879, pp. 527-9. For the 

pundits, see Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, op.cit., pp. 348-368; and Hermann Kreutzmann, Wakhan Quadrangle: Exploration and espionage during 

and after the Great Game, Wiesbaden 2017; Kreutzmann’s work is notable for his timely praise for the work of the pundits and his criticism of the 

arrogant attitude of their masters.

21   See 



22   George Nathaniel Curzon, ‘The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus’, The Geographical Journal (GJ), Vol. 8-1, 1896, p. 80.

Nicolai Alekseevich Severtsov  



Robert Middleton 


on 30 September and, travelling via Osh and Gulcha, reaching the Alai on 26 October. At the Kyzyl 

Art Pass they encountered severe weather conditions, and were forced to return to Osh, not entirely 

without results since Severtsov had collected many specimens, Skassi had been able to measure 

fifteen mountain peaks and Schwarz had made several measurements of terrestrial coordinates.

Markansu (“Death”) valley near the Kyzyl Art pass (1993)


The next year, Severtsov put together another expedition, that started research in the Ferghana Valley 

and reached the Alai on 27 July. After a few days’ independent research, the scientists met up at Kara 

Kul on 12 August and continued together beyond Kara Kul into unexplored territory in the eastern 

Pamirs: Rang Kul, Murghab, Alichur and Yashilkul – and, as Severtsov put it in the report of the 

expedition, “made the first comprehensive, multi-disciplinary and thorough research of the Pamir and 

finally determined its orography and scientific geography in relation to the Tian Shen.”



Unfortunately, a caravan bringing food was plundered en route by local Kyrgyz and the team had 

to cut short its work before reaching the Great Pamir and Zorkul. They returned to Ferghana on 26 

September, bringing back specimens of 20,000 plants (representing some 1,000 different species), 60 

mammals, 350 birds and 20 fish. Their work filled in many blanks in knowledge of the Pamirs and 

permitted major improvements in the maps produced by the Russian General Staff. In 1880, Severtsov 

published a map (Карта Памира и сопредельных стран, дополненной по съемкам топографа 

23   In the Turkic languages, appropriately, kyzyl means ‘red’.


 - see footnote 2.

The Russians in the Great Game 


Скасси  и  сведенияам  доктора  зоологии  Северцова  [Map  of  the  Pamir  and  adjacent  countries, 

supplemented by the surveys of the topographer Skassi] - 30 versts to the inch) that showed the main 

mountain ranges and valleys of the Pamirs and the subdivision between the different principalities of the 

Pamirs (Karategin, Darwaz, Rushan, Badakhshan, Shughnan) and the historico-geographical areas of 

the Pamirs (Alichur, Khargush, 

Great, Little, Rang Kul, 

Sarikol, Sarez). A map showing 

Severtsov’s route was also 

published in Petermann’s 

Geographische  Mittheilungen 

in 1880. 

Like his contemporary Pyotr 

Semyonov - who explored 

the Tien Shan and was later 

permitted by Imperial decree 

to add the word Tienshansky to 

his name - Severtsov enjoyed 

a high reputation during his 

lifetime and he had hardly 

returned from the Pamirs in 

1878 when he was awarded 

the Imperial gold medal for his 

work there. It was, however, his 

last expedition. He was still cataloguing and writing up his collections of specimens and giving 

lectures at Moscow university and the IRGS when, in 1885, he was the victim of an accident in which 

his carriage broke through thin ice on a river near his home. The complete results of his work were 

published posthumously in 1886 by the IRGS.

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